The Strathcona Variations EP
(Ghostly International; 2009)
By Calum Marsh | 12 December 2009
Pitchfork’s Cosmo Lee recently wrote of the Toronto noise-rock project Nadja that their methodology “virtually precludes producing duds.” There’s something about the aesthetic that many people find fundamentally appealing—meaning that as long as Nadja continues to produce albums that sound like other Nadja albums, they will continue to appeal to that audience. That’s how I’ve come to feel about ambient and noise in general: producing an ambient record isn’t necessarily “easier” than producing, say, an indie rock one, but the results seem more uniformly enjoyable. So, while I may only really like one rap album for every ten I hear, I tend to respond positively to almost all ambient material that comes my way. And even if I’m not floored by Mokira or moved by Riceboy Sleeps, I wouldn’t exactly be averse to hearing them again.
If it’s that producing pleasant soundscapes simply precludes producing duds, we ought to be more rigorous in seeking out the exceptional. Works with heady thematic conceits, especially high-concept stuff like The Disintegration Loops (2001) or Harmony In Ultraviolet (2006), transcend the perceived simplicity of the craft by turning abstractions into arguments about something. That “Aboutness” forms a major a part of why those ambient works resonate more strongly than others, and in the very least it gives us something interesting to write about beyond what sorts of tape loops and synthesizers were employed in making those hisses and whirs. That Loscil’s The Strathcona Variations sounds terrific, then, almost goes without saying: its particular hisses and whirs come together competently, sure, and so on a certain level this is guaranteed to satisfy those already partial to the genre’s reliably consistent conventions.
Loscil wears those conventions differently than his peers—though not so differently as to seem like reactionary difference is explicitly the point. And so the rules of the game aren’t so much challenged or subverted as they are played with, which even in a genre already defined by minimalism comes off like an especially subtle gesture. For instance: The Strathcona Variations is less than twenty minutes long. In a genre built around expansive soundscapes, the duration of which can be extended almost arbitrarily through simple repetition, that restraint’s in aid of something important: this EP feels intensely urgent, and cutting things so short prevents listeners from settling into a rut of complacency. A great deal of ambient relies on placidity, allowing itself to wash over the listener in long, steady stretches. There are certainly exceptions but few unnerve their listeners as thoroughly as this, and Loscil does so without resorting to the outright scare-mongering of noise. Again, The Strathcona Variations feels singular without boasting its own distinctiveness.
In a year already teeming with major ambient records—Emeralds, White Rainbow, Tim Hecker, Mountains, and William Basinski among the most notable, though I’m undoubtedly missing solid showings from lesser-known practitioners of the craft—The Strathcona Variations still manages, rather remarkably, to stand out amidst the glut. You already know that you’ll like this. But I suspect you may also love it.